You Have Promised Me A Thing Not Possible

The Rhythm Of Living and John Huston's The Dead 

The Dead (1987) | Vestron Pictures
Vestron Pictures

Two minutes and 57 seconds—that is exactly how long it takes before you see a single thing on screen in John Huston’s adaptation of the James Joyce short story, The Dead. The opening credits fade in and out like the flickering of a candle, backed by the delicate plucking of a harp. It is but the first of a series of small eternities that make up a pretty faithful adaptation of Joyce’s plot: the gossip and goings-on at a Christmas dinner party in 1904 Dublin. A story that small presents a daunting prospect for a film, as well as the temptation to expand on or enliven it. One can easily imagine, say, Julian Fellowes adjusting the collar on one of his thousand tweed jackets and inventing a series of juicy intrigues amongst the Morkan Sisters and their guests, or Tom Hooper figuring out how to justify wild camera swings from one end of Usher’s Island to the other, finding a way to inject movement and rhythm into what is, for protagonist Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), a dull familial obligation of an evening.  

But Huston, stubborn Irish soul that he is, plods resolutely forward, refusing to cut away from or even spice up small talk about long-dead singers and summer holidays. A character standing up and reciting the translation of a melancholy Irish poem takes up a full four minutes of screen time; a discussion as dessert’s being served about opera stars of yore (and yore for 1904, mind you) lasts over five minutes; at one point, an old woman mangles singing “Arrayed for The Bridal,” over—and I swear I’m not making this up—a montage of all the knick-knacks and tchotchkes in the three sisters’ house. The Dead moves so slowly that you can almost see Ingmar Bergman throwing up his hands in frustration. The incredible, almost perverse thing about this movie, though, is that all the above isn’t a criticism. It’s kind of what makes the adaptation work—not just as a vehicle for capturing the spirit of Joyce’s story, one of the greatest in the English language, but as cinema, too. 

One of the smartest things I ever heard from a college professor about filmmaking is there’s a difference between showing boredom and being boring. The former requires a very sophisticated control over the audience, so that we stay engaged while understanding outwardly, intellectually, that what’s happening isn’t interesting for the characters. The danger of adapting The Dead is that without Joyce’s prose giving us Gabriel’s internal view of the party, the vast majority of the incidents are deadly dull. It’s a tale devoid of the action, tension, stakes, or perspective that tends to propel a story forward. There is no cat and, if there was, it certainly wouldn’t want saving. 

Just in case you ever need to take an AP Lit exam, here’s exactly what happens: Part-time journalist and teacher Gabriel, along with his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), arrive for his Aunt Kate’s (Helena Carroll) annual holiday party. There’s worry about one of the guests, Freddy Malins (Donal Donnelly), showing up unmanageably drunk—he’s not, but only just. The dozen or so partygoers, all either related to the Morkans or connected to them through enthusiasm for the Dublin musical scene, have a dance. A republican, Molly Ivors (Maria McDermottroe), harangues Gabriel to not be so European, but to look to Ireland and his own people. His Aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany) is prevailed upon to sing. There’s dinner. Dessert. Just enough religion, culture, and politics to keep everyone on edge, deliberately diplomatic, or drunk. Gabriel’s toast to the hostesses goes over well. The guests shuffle out into the snowy Dublin evening. But then, Gretta is so struck by a tenor named Bartell D’Arcy’s (Frank Patterson) singing that when the married couple get back to their hotel she confesses that the song reminded her of a boy she knew long ago named Michael Furey. Distraught, Gretta tells Gabriel that the 17-year-old Michael loved her so much, he braved a storm to see her before she was to leave Galway for Dublin, and died a week later. Gretta goes to sleep, leaving Gabriel to ponder this large part of his wife that was unknown to him. He looks out the window and sees falling snow. That’s it. That’s the story. Yippee-kai…yeah. 

Okay, I am being a bit disingenuous—the point of what happens here isn’t what happens, even in the original Joyce story. There’s a level of loneliness and desperation to every single person at the Morkans beneath the party atmosphere. Grasping that vulnerability, that piece of frailty which is part of our common humanity, is key to The Dead, and helps it pull off the trick of retroactively softening the reader’s opinion of the story’s characters. Great filmmakers know how to thread that needle of conveying subjective understanding and sympathy through camera and framing—think about the ending staircase shot snuffing out all hope for Claude Rains in Notorious, or Park Yeon-kyo ascending the steps of her house to spy the hot sauce planted by the Kims in Parasite. There are myriad ways for a camera or a composition to visually hammer home the import and emotion of even the smallest and most mundane actions. 

Huston is a great filmmaker, but for the most part he holds his camera aloof. His The Dead is full of dutiful reaction shots and slow pans around the drawing room. It’s got a kind of detachment that should be insufferable—it should, at best, be missing the storytelling forest for the trees in so slavishly recreating the beats of Joyce’s prose. It should be all surface. Gabriel’s point-of-view narration, after all, is what’s able to pierce that veneer of appearances. Gabriel is our conduit into the slightly benighted traditions of his family and friends, which allows him, and us, to spy out the important kernels of emotion. At the end, of course, Joyce disrupts his judgments and sureties—he’s just as mortal as anyone. He’s just as mortal as everyone

This realization, even more than the fairly benign plot of the story, is the challenge of adapting The Dead: moviegoers occupy an impossible perspective. We get to enjoy a curated view of time and space that is constructed purely for us, that makes sense only to us. So how do you plug us back into the flow of time? How do you get us to appreciate that we aren’t exempt—that we aren’t, in fact, an audience? How do you get us to understand and to really feel what Gabriel means when he thinks “snow was general all over Ireland?”

What Huston’s adaptation understands, the reason for its stubbornly long, plain takes and unhurried flow, is that the point of a filmed version of this story isn’t its visual representation. Film depends upon the cut, after all. Huston’s The Dead has a deliberate rhythm that refuses to behave like a movie…while still somehow holding our attention. Sometimes only just. But the film’s pace cons us into experiencing the ordinary incidents of the Morkan Sisters’ party as something much more akin to how we construct the story of ourselves. Huston takes you—antsy, impatient, desperate for incident—and forces you to slow down. He lulls you into accepting what happens at the party, into tolerating old Aunt Julia and poor Freddy and the equally soused Angelican, Mr. Browne (Dan O’Herlihy), because there is simply no escape from it. 

The Dead is a film that surrenders the essential privilege of movie-watching—making mental connections over the cut, creating a story as we experience it. It’s really a kind of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome, situating the audience to be so like the partygoers that we soon find ourselves no more distant from the events than Gabriel is. We may try to hold ourselves apart, but we aren’t. The story doesn’t move around for us, not the way we might want it to, and gradually we accept that. As we must. 

That surrender to time is something prose can do, but when you pull it off in film, you create an experience that’s very much its own thing, and feels far more inexorable. The reader controls the flow of how fast or slow they absorb a story, where their eyes land on the page. We can fast-forward or rewind a movie, too, of course. But we don’t have that same level of control as we do forming a narrative word by word. 24 frames a second is too many for us to manage each one. What the film version of The Dead sacrifices in character subjectivity, it makes up for in a kind of living, overhanging sense of the passage of time. Its inevitability. Our inability to control it. In conveying that inevitability, Huston gets at the very heart of Joyce’s story. He gets at the inevitability of death. 

John Huston was dying when he directed The Dead. He knew it would be his last film. So did his son Tony, who wrote the screenplay, and his daughter Angelica, gracious and lively as Gretta in a way that seems a little softer and kinder than Joyce’s careworn housewife. There is death at every turn in the story, just beneath every surface. Mr. Grace’s recitation is of an annihilating, fatal love; the partygoers relate the story of a young opera singer who died before her time; Freddy is set to take a retreat at a monastery where monks sleep in their coffins. The song Mr. D’Arcy sings, “The Lass of Aughrim,” is about a young woman out in the cold, clutching her dying child. 

If you look closely, whenever Gabriel absents himself to check over his speech or tries to strike a controlled, stable position in frame, Huston invariably finds a way to have another character break his solitude, or have his own shadow loom over him. Though it’s restrained, the repetition of the shadow of death intermixed with life is ingrained into the film’s visual DNA and guides its choices. If that feels like Huston slowly easing off the pressure on the final brushstrokes in the much wider canvas of his work, well, it gives the film a gravitas to contend with Joyce’s command of language. 

But only up to a point. 

I go back to reread Dubliners every few years—usually in April, both the month that I was born and the month my father died. I can’t remember now if I read the book for the first time immediately before or after his death—2006 has become a bit of an “i” in the Jeremy Bearimy—but “The Dead” profoundly impacted my understanding of my own mortality: it was a gentle nudge that, as desperately as my mind wanted to protect me and make me a spectator in the dramatic series of events swirling around me, I won’t ever be able stand outside of them. Only art can do that.  

I watched the film version of The Dead for the first time at some hazy point between starting on college essays and summer jobs, and remember feeling a little bit bored, a little bit confused, but also more than a little compelled. Was it really just dramatizing the movements of the book with people puppets (er, actors), or was there something else going on? Even then, snooty and intensely serious about books as only a 17-year-old can be, I remember being incredibly moved by the ending of the film, which, I thought then, surrendered to the original. 

The camera pushes in slightly on Donal McCann as he stares, awestruck, at his wife and the person he realizes is outside of their marriage. Huston shakes off the film’s self-imposed restraint on character interiority and gives us Joyce’s famous ending as a voiceover, over a montage of snow falling over Ireland, over space and time and all the souls who have moved through them. 

It struck me as a grace, even in high school, to hear the words of a human being realize his connection to all other humans, his shared fate with the living and the dead, and the incredible compassion that comes out of that understanding. Going back to it years later, once I’d begun to study film, and again now as I sit far more uncomfortably close to Gabriel Conroy than I am to Michael Furey, I realize the voiceover at the end isn’t a surrender to the superiority of prose—or at least, not only that.  It’s the final tool in Huston’s arsenal to convey what the story is driving at, in a way that only film can do

Film bridges space and time. It leaps over the billion everyday eternities that define our passage through life to light on the vital, defining moments. Huston holds back until the very last, but then he lets the film encompass and define what it is to be alive, and to know that one day we won’t be. It is unspeakably sad, yes, but also the gateway to truly seeing everyone around us as they are: fellow travelers, deserving of a love beyond our ability to describe. 

Luckily, Joyce has words enough. It’s very possible to understand just from the writing what Joyce means by the story’s sublime last sentence: “[Gabriel’s] soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” But in making The Dead, Huston helps us hear it. He helps us feel it. And he helps us see it, too.